Amazon’s Kindle MatchBook will let you buy cheap digital editions of print books you already own

Readers have long wondered why ebooks and print books can’t be bundled together, but big publishers have been reluctant to get anywhere near the notion. Now it looks as if Amazon has found at least a partial solution: The company (s AMZN) on Tuesday announced a new service, Kindle MatchBook, that will allow users to buy cheap Kindle editions of print books that they’ve purchased from Amazon any time since 1995. The digital editions will “typically” range in price between $0 and $2.99.

The catch is that it’s not available for every book. Print purchases “will qualify once a publisher enrolls a title in Kindle MatchBook,” and Amazon says that when MatchBook launches in October “over 10,000 books will already be available.” That includes certain titles from big names like Michael Crichton, Ray Bradbury, Jodi Picoult, Neil Gaiman and Wally Lamb. Also, not surprisingly, it includes Amazon Publishing authors like Blake Crouch, Marcus Sakey and Neal Stephenson — and going forward, “Amazon Publishing will include all its titles in Kindle MatchBook.” Authors who use Amazon’s digital self-publishing service, KDP, can also enroll their titles.

Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s VP of Kindle Content, told the New York Times (s NYT) that “one of the most common requests Amazon receives from its Kindle customers is a way to build parallel print and digital book libraries, which hasn’t been practical at full retail prices.” Grandinetti also makes the 10,000-book claim cited in the press release sound a bit less certain:

 “Amazon hadn’t told most publishers about MatchBook yet and hoped to sign more up to join the program, which will begin in October. He predicted there will be more than 10,000 books available for purchase through MatchBook.”

It’s unclear whether publishers are going to buy into this. A quick scan of the titles available so far suggests that many of the eligible books are old — Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany — and, as the New York Times points out, older ebooks are often cheap anyway. New bestsellers would offer the biggest chance at savings for readers, but publishers may be reluctant to include them for precisely that reason. With old books, on the other hand, publishers have the chance to earn a little extra revenue that they likely wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Of course, Amazon could actually forge ahead with this program despite publisher reluctance: The settlements reached in the Apple ebook pricing case give retailers the ability to discount ebooks as much as they want, with a few limitations. But for now, at least, it looks as if Amazon is seeking publisher participation.